Louise Mathias was born in England and grew up in England and Los Angeles. Her first book, Lark Apprentice, was chosen by Brenda Hillman for the New Issues Prize, and a chapbook, Above All Else, The Trembling Resembles a Forest, won the Burnside Review Chapbook Contest. Her latest collection, The Traps, was published in 2012 by Four Way Books. She currently splits her time between Joshua Tree, California and a cabin on Donner Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Patrick C. Dennis. Of the process, he said, “ It was lovely to read Louise Mathias's collection and to engage with such powerfully written, yet brief poems. It was a pleasure to work with her.” In this interview, Louise discusses her process as a poet, her love of rural places, and her desire to create psychological poems.
Superstition Review: A bit of time passed between the publication of your collection Lark Apprentice and The Traps. How do you feel you have grown as a poet over that span of time?
Louise Mathias: I’m not sure I’ve grown so much as mutated a bit around the edges. My style has not radically changed, but the tone of The Traps I feel is different. Certainly when I look back at my first book, some of the poems feel young in their worldview—overly fatalistic. You cannot help, the longer you live, to see the world in more gray and complicated terms and I think the poems reflect that. I’ve also felt myself grow much more brazen about what I’m willing to say and how I’m willing to be perceived--the ego gets removed a bit. I’ve become less concerned about audience and it’s become perversely enjoyable to me to be a little confrontational in poems, to the reader, to myself-- everyone is complicit. And certain new interests, proclivities, experiences, obsessions, of course are in the newer work. I don’t see a lot of separation between who I am as a human being and what happens in the poems, so I suppose that’s all a long winded way of saying that I’ve changed as a poet in much the same ways I’ve changed as a human.
SR: I’m intrigued by the epigraph, “The secret of poetry is cruelty,” by Jon Anderson. Will you talk a bit about how that notion informs this book? How does it inform your life as a poet?
LM: When I first read that line, which is the final line of the poem "The Secret of Poetry," by Jon Anderson, it struck me as the truest line I’d ever read as far as what the poems I love most do to me. I’ve said it elsewhere and I’ll say it again, I want poems to hurt me. When I get to the end of a poem I want it to have left marks, or at least to feel like someone ran the blade of a knife slowly and delicately across my skin, so perhaps it’s not so much the injury as the threat of the injury. I was moving in this direction in my work anyway, but this line, this idea that the sublime maybe draws a little blood, well, it just become a sort of a truism for me as a writer. I knew very early on that I would use it as the epigraph.
SR: Your poems are impeccably condensed, almost snapshots of feelings suspended in time. Will you describe some editing choices you make to create this carefully trimmed effect?
LM: I’ve actually tried pretty hard to write in a more expansive way, but I’m just not good at it, or at least have not been as of yet. The poems don’t usually start out any longer than they end up. It’s a struggle for me to get enough material down sometimes, and when my poems fail I often think it’s because they ended up too slight. But you can’t take a slight poem and somehow add more weight to it at least I’ve never been able to. Anyway, I spend a lot of time moving bits of language around, fiddling, changing things out. I compose primarily by ear so it’s all about what sounds right based on my totally subjective and irrational ear. Since brevity seems to be what I’m good at, I try to cover as much psychological territory as I can within each poem—but ultimately its music over meaning, and I guess the music I’m drawn to create is a tightly honed, rather tense one.
SR: The last poem titled “Silt” in this collection I find very interesting in that it ends so abruptly. Could you please talk about how you made the decision to end the manuscript on an open-ended note?
LM: When I had assembled the book and read it, I was struck at how relentless it felt, and frankly rather grim, so I liked the idea of ending on a poem that leaves the reader facing an open road full of possibilities, not all of them bleak.
SR: Two of your poems you end with simply a dash. Will you talk a bit about what’s more difficult: endings or beginnings? How many drafts do you usually do? What choices do you make about how a poems sticks?
LM: Both are difficult for me. Everything about writing poems is horribly difficult for me. I find nothing more satisfying than a great ending, but I think my weakness is that I love nailing an ending so much I’m liable to want to tie things up too neatly. I fight against that impulse and try to end inconclusively when I can. If I can’t get the beginning right and the ending right after many drafts I’m likely to abandon the poem eventually. As for drafts, I don’t really keep track but it’s many. I mean, I fiddle with the same twelve line poem for months and months.
SR: Browsing over your acknowledgements page, I see that your poems first appeared in a wide variety of magazines including Anti- and Third Coast. What are some of your favorite literary magazines? How does your submissions process work?
LM: The Volta, Typo, The Offending Adam, Denver Quarterly, Lana Turner, and BOMB, are reliable sources for exciting and excellent work.
My submissions process these days is haphazard and infrequent. Editors occasionally are kind enough to ask for work, and if I have something I’m happy enough with, I’ll send it. I was much more organized about it at one point, but for whatever reason it’s ceased to feel as important as of late. This is not a strategy I recommend, mind you, but it’s the current state of things.
SR: What is your process for organizing your poems into collections?
LM: With my first book, I mostly handed it over to a couple of people I trusted implicitly and let them have their way with it. With The Traps, it actually wasn’t a particularly difficult task. When I finally, after almost a decade, had enough poems for a book, I found that they really just organically worked together. They seemed of a piece, a bunch of sharp little objects from the same family. I simply arranged them in a way that felt intuitively right to me, that pleased me.
SR: What is most important to you when titling your work? What elements of your poems do you try to capture in their titles? How does that extend to the title of a collection?
LM: I love a title that both deepens the mystery of the poem as well as shines a light on it from a different, surprising angle. If I can somehow capture both clarity and mystery in a title I feel I’ve succeeded. That’s true for the title of a collection too.
SR: How have other writers influenced your process? What is some specific advice another writer has given to you that has changed the way you look at writing?
LM: My process has been very consistent from the beginning, and as much as I would have hoped to pick up good habits of writers I’ve been close to, it hasn’t happened. I was in a relationship for many years with a poet who is very prolific, has a laser-sharp focus on poetry and a singular dedication to the art, who also took much joy in the process, in a way that was incredibly inspiring for me, but it didn’t end up rubbing off on me at all, sad to say. What it did do was force me to reckon with and come to terms with my own process which is slow and will not yield to force. Part of this may be due to the fact that I’m only really interested in a writing a poem of psychological intensity—if I can’t reach a certain kind of emotional pitch in the poem, I’m not interested in finishing it. It takes a lot out of me, to write, as I’m determined to go down to the deepest place within myself that I can. To quote Emmy Lou Harris, I’m “lookin’ for the water from a deeper well." That can be scary and would be next to impossible for me to do on a daily basis.
As for advice, several of my teachers impressed upon me the importance of having ambition for your work rather than for yourself. Not that ambition for yourself is bad exactly, but it can be a big distraction, to be focused on external rewards rather than the intrinsic ones. That’s an important distinction, one that has sustained me over the years as far as balance and my day-to-day happiness goes.
SR: Some of your poems have locations attached to them that ask us to see that poem in a certain place. How does your environment influence your poems?
LM: Place, landscape, has a bigger effect on me, psychologically, than any other factor. I’m a hopeless, stressed out wreck in major cities, for example. If I was ever forced to live in one again I’m not sure I’d make it out alive. Anywhere rural is bliss, but even out in the country, different landscapes have a profoundly different effect on my mood, the pace of my breath, everything. The desert, where I’m most at home, makes me feel totally free and wonderfully inconsequential. The desert doesn’t need you—and that severe kind of beauty really speaks to me. I’m writing this from a cabin on Donner Lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where I’ll be spending quite a bit of time this coming year, and this landscape does something different to me entirely. I’m a little more amped up, kind of exhilarated. Maybe it’s just altitude sickness, but I feel the presence of ghosts. I’m excited to see how it will affect my work. All that being said, I’ve never been interested in being a poet of “place” but my relationship with place, with the land, the flora and fauna, the clouds and all that, occupies a lot of space in my brain and imagination, is as significant as any relationship with any human I have or have had, so it’s a major subject.
SR: What made you want to become a writer?
LM: As a teenage girl I felt so voiceless and terrified and determined somehow to live. It seemed a way to do that. In those early days, it wasn’t some grand intellectual impulse, but a survival strategy. Perhaps still is.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
LM: Poems for me are more of a byproduct of a lived life than sitting at a desk sweating it out, so while I have a couple of desks, which I like looking at, arranging things on, like what they represent, I have to admit I don’t often use them. Plus, my life is such that I’m never in one place for too long a stretch of time. I’m much more likely to compose while driving, dreaming, hiking, so I guess I would say my writing space is the world—I’ve written in airports, motel rooms, the last time I seriously attempted to tackle a poem was in a motel room in Death Valley. I’ve written a lot in beds, actually. I think that cocoon like space is perhaps a good counterpoint for the absolutely terrifying experience of writing—it’s good to be, at least physically speaking, warm and safe while you are standing on the edge of a cliff.